Scientists discover the ancient Greenland shark in a truly strange place

One of the last things biologists expected to find in the mild Caribbean Sea was an ancient Greenland shark, a creature known to live far away in the freezing Arctic.

Yet the researchers, while temporarily trapping and tagging tiger sharks off the coast of Belize, caught a Greenland shark (or potentially a hybrid of Greenland shark), a species that has lived for centuries in the deep sea.

“Suddenly we saw a lazy and very slow creature beneath the surface of the water,” Devanshi Kasana, biologist and PhD. Florida International University’s Predator Ecology and Conservation lab candidate, he told Mashable. The observation was recently published in the scientific journal Marine biology. At first, the researchers thought it might be a six-gill shark, a dominant and fascinating predator of the deep sea. But they photographed the rarely seen animal and confirmed that it was a Greenland shark.

“It looked like something that would have existed in prehistoric times”, Kasana added.

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In fact, Greenland sharks belong to an approximately 100 million-year-old family of sharks that existed when dinosaurs ruled the planet. Sharks spend most of their lives in the dark, thousands of feet underwater, where they grow slowly, move slowly, and age slowly. In the deep sea, where nutrients are scarce, moving slowly to conserve energy is an important adaptation. Greenland sharks are clearly well adapted for these depths: they live for over two and a half centuries, and possibly even longer. They are the longest-lived vertebrates on Earth.

The Greenland shark, with its greenish-blue eye, observed in Belize by marine biologists.
Credit: Devanshi Kasana

What is a Greenland shark doing in the Caribbean?

Spotting a Greenland shark near a coral reef off the coast of Belize was certainly an unexpected surprise. But it is not unimaginable.

This relatively little known species is known to thrive in the deep seas in and around the Arctic. They could potentially also inhabit other deep ocean regions, biologists say. This includes the Caribbean. After setting up a line in the protected atoll of Glover’s Reef in Belize while monitoring and searching for tiger sharks, the biologists returned the next day to find that their line had moved a couple of miles from the reef, in water about 2,000 feet deep.

When they pulled up their scientific catch, they saw the unusual shark. “He looked very, very old,” marveled Hector Daniel Martinez, one of the researchers who spotted the shark and co-author of the study. “It was in very deep water.”

“He looked very, very old.”

The slope off the nearby reef plunges to approximately 9,500 feet deep. It is a deeply cold and dark realm, ideal for a Greenland shark.

Deep seas are notoriously little explored and not well understood. The discovery of this Arctic shark points out that just because we haven’t seen a phenomenon doesn’t mean it’s not happening. “We know so little about the deep ocean that virtually anyone can find something new if they were doing something unique there,” Alan Leonardi, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, told Mashable in 2020. of Ocean Exploration and Research.

Finding a Greenland shark in Belize wasn’t easy. It called for several researchers, local fishermen and the government of Belize to collaborate in a protected ocean area. It gave researchers the opportunity to observe something scientifically unprecedented. “This discovery is made possible by scientists working together,” Demian Chapman, one of the study’s co-authors and director of Sharks and Rays Conservation Research at Marine laboratory and Mote aquariumhe told Mashable.

“It was very close to the coral,” Chapman noted. “Normally you think they are close to the ice.”

A looming question is whether this particular Greenland shark has traveled to the Caribbean from Arctic seas or whether it has lived in tropical (deep) waters for much of its life. It is unknown. But there’s a good chance there are others wandering over there, in the dark waters where we can’t see.

“I doubt he’s the only one,” Chapman said.

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